Nothing comes close to describing the experience of navigating Mumbai streets, whether as a pedestrian, a passenger in a cab or auto, or behind the wheel. In a city with over two million vehicles on single/double/or three lane streets, there is just not enough space for traffic to move smoothly at an even pace. With all the fumes from the exhaust, Mumbai citizens are increasingly prone to respiratory illnesses. Like in other major cities, there seems to be no solution to the air pollution problem.
It used to be that the movement of traffic would be towards South Mumbai during peak hours of office-going and the reverse would occur in the evening so traffic snarls could be timed and pinpointed. Not anymore. Businesses have sprouted all over (east, west, north) so there is no clear demarcation anymore of peak and off-peak hours. The rush is both ways and congestion begins at 8 am and lasts until 10 pm on the main arteries, whether in the city or suburbs.
Everyone is in a hurry to get to where they are going and this dictates driving styles and road manners or lack thereof. The concept of etiquette is non-existent. Lanes might as well not be drawn because the vehicles are packed end to end in six columns. When the signals change to green, the race is on. Motor bikes weave in and out of car streams. Cars are bumper to bumper and a handshake apart. A terribly wrenching sight is to see an ambulance with a siren wailing unable to make it out of the traffic glut. There is no room to suddenly get a lane free for the ambulance’s swift passage. But more disheartening is to see no one moving aside to give right of way when the traffic begins to move.
Auto rickshaws are the daredevils of the street, swerving through twists and turns at breakneck speeds while you clutch the seat or bite your nails. Incidentally, the autos are open on both sides so taxis provide relatively more protection. The most notable feature of the free-for-all of Mumbai streets is the absence of 2-way stop and go signs on busy cross streets. So drivers just shoot across or muscle their way in, taking right or left turns coming face to face with other unruly drivers and simply waiting for someone to budge.
Scores of flyovers have been built and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, which is a fast toll bridge, is a marvel. But it provides temporary respite and saves 20-30 minutes, because once you get off the speedway, you are sucked back into the snare of traffic. Surprisingly, except for non-stop honking, there is very little yelling or cursing on the streets. There seems to be an unwritten code of tolerance and patience since no real solution seems to be at hand. It is more like resignation. Occupants of the cars, ricks, and motorbikes wait with blank faces switching off their emotions to preserve their sanity.
It has been noted that Indians don’t smile as much as Americans do. Whether in the streets or trains, or buses or posing for yearbook photos, or family portraits, Indians wear serious, almost glum expressions. With the daily frustrations like water shut-offs, rising prices, unaffordable health care, grinding postal and banking services, bribery, stench, unsafe walking conditions – what, one may ask, is there to smile about?
Crossing the street in heavy traffic is a challenge met by the locals with nonchalance. Running across the street is a necessary skill since there is no other option. There are foot bridges in some spots which allow pedestrians safe passage, but there are not enough of them. They involve trudging up and down stairs, so pedestrians prefer to dodge their way through the traffic. Old habits die hard.
Even walking, except on promenades which are tiled and rubble-free, is a hazard on ordinary pavements. The ground is so uneven because patchwork repairs leave piles of mud or bricks which are not cleared for years (I am not kidding. We have gone back after two years to be greeted by the same pile of rubble) and every step has to be taken with caution. And invariably, the pavements are crammed with vendors and their customers.
Despite the urban nightmare that all cities in South Asia have become, Mumbai still remains the commercial and cultural capital of India. It can match New York, Chicago, and London in what it has to offer in music, art, literature, cinema, theatre, fashion, and cuisine on a weekly basis. Its film industry is one of the largest, most successful, and glamorous operations.
Population growth, the rise of the middle class, skyrocketing real estate spurred on by unplanned development, has kept Mumbai as a hub of commercial activity. Urban squalor has claimed Bangaluru [Bangalore] as well and Pune is fast getting there. The state of the roads and the traffic backups in the IT capital of India is shocking. Pune, the once lovely hill station that served as a retreat for Mumbai residents, is out of control following the same development path. Kolkata [formerly Calcutta], although it is not as densely populated as Mumbai or Delhi, long ago became the paradigm for the fate that was to overtake other cities.
But Mumbai’s split personality is hardly a recent phenomenon. The popular song from the 1956 movie C.I.D., spells out the contradiction:
Aai dil hai mushkil jeena yahaan, zara hutke, zara bachke, ye hai Bombay meri jaan
(It’s hard living here; step carefully, watch out, this is Bombay my love.)
The second line says:
Oh it is easy living here, because this is Bombay my love.
One can go back even further to the 1870s. A recently published first novel, ‘Days of Gold and Sepia’ (HarperCollins, 2012) by Yasmeen Premji, set in the late 1800s, follows the rise from rags to riches of a migrant from Gujarat. Even though it is a work of fiction, the protagonist’s perception is right on target:
“Lalljee loved everything about Bombay: its vitality, its exuberance, its illusions, its opportunities, its oppression, its excesses, and its infidelities. It was at once voluptuous and vapid, tantalizing and tormenting. He loved its exquisite contradictions: the aroma of money, the stench of garbage, its promises and betrayals, its splendor and its sordid underbelly. It boasted unimaginable wealth, interwoven with searing poverty.” (p. 78)
The Mumbai Spirit
We are here for six weeks in January and February. We live in a seven storey flat in suburban Khar West on the Danda-Chuim village side. Chuim is one of those anomalies tucked away in some pocket of the city and forgotten or hidden in plain sight and carrying on its unique life. It has winding lanes and bungalows dating back to the early 1900s. These largely belong to the Goan Christians or to the East Indian Catholics. The elders in the former group still speak Portuguese, while Konkani is the latter community’s mother tongue.
The street we live on has all the conveniences within a quarter mile radius as do most Mumbai suburbs – general stores, pharmacies, saloons, gym, garages, restaurants, tailors, small outfits serving industrial needs, bakeries, dairies, mithai and farsan shops, and a photo studio. It goes without saying that the street is lined with vegetable and fruit vendors. The shops are even on call for home delivery. On the rim is a fish market where the daily catch is sold. There is also the ubiquitous Hanuman shrine at street end smack in the middle of the road!
Despite the pressures and stresses of big city life, what Mumbai is not, is impersonal. One comes across gracious, courteous, and helpful behaviour in what would seem unlikely places: the rickshawallahs and cab drivers, the hotel serving boys and cleanup crew, lift attendants and building gatekeepers, shop assistants, school children, errand runners and delivery personnel.
The wheelchair attendant at Mumbai’s spanking new air terminal was exemplary in this regard. His name was More (Mo-ray). He filled out the immigration slips, took us to the counter where we had to fill out another form for the non-arrival of our baggage, then to claim our cash compensation for the delay. No one at the airline’s counter gave us this information. Outside the terminal, our pick-up from the airport was a no-show. We had no mobiles. More used his to call our hosts who advised us to hire a taxi. That required going to the top level to the pre-paid taxi stand to make a booking. While I waited in line and obtained a slip, More helped locate the vehicle and put us in it. He did it all with a smile without any expectations or naming a price for the extra service. We were glad to give him a handsome tip as we waved goodbye and sped out into the Mumbai traffic.
Saleem Peeradina’s account of growing up in Bombay can be found in his memoir, ‘The Ocean in My Yard’ (Penguin, 2005). He is also the author of six books of poetry including ‘New and Selected Poems’ and ‘Final Cut’, due out in 2016. He is Emeritus Professor of English at Siena Heights University.